13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi is the kind of movie Michael Bay has been trying to make for the better part of the last decade. It’s a loud, chaotic action film that is low on romance and high on tension. Better yet, it’s based on a true story that Bay does everything in his power to recreate as it happened, and knowing this gives a whole new meaning to the visceral battle sequences that have become a signature of the filmmaker’s work.
Based on the book 13 Hours, the latest film from Michael Bay tells the tense and often terrifying story of six men who took it upon themselves to fight for the lives of numerous U.S. citizens located in a top-secret CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, following a terrorist attack that took place on September 11, 2012. The men had no responsibility to act, as they were there to be little more than highly trained security guards, but after hearing cries for help from a nearby diplomatic compound they decided that something had to be done. Their chief disagrees, and even pleads with the men to stay put, but they know that further inaction will only lead to destruction. If the terrorists win control of the compound the annex will be next, and if they gain access to the annex no American will survive the night.
Adding to the tension of the story is a very real confusion of who is who and who fights for what on the streets of Benghazi. The United States has allies in the area, but as most groups do not have uniforms it can be very hard to tell who is and is not a good guy when bullets start to fly. This is a recurring theme in the film, as it was in real life, and it forces viewers to second guess every encounter they witness on-screen. This accomplishment may be the most surprising element of the film, as it gives an added layer of suspense to the story that isn’t found in any other film Bay has created to date.
John Krasinski, who has struggled to remain a Hollywood notable in the years following The Office, serves as the film’s lead. He’s the first person we meet when the film begins, and for the most part it’s his perspective through which we view Benghazi and the madness that ensues. One would think this would provide ample opportunities for speeches or similar show-stopping moments, but Krasinski is actually rather quiet in his delivery. His character is a family man who cannot figure out how to leave his gun-toting history behind him, and the struggle to be the man he wants to be as opposed to the one he has become is what gives his character purpose in the story. He knows he must make it home in order to make everything right, which is a sentiment shared by other men in his unit, but unfortunately home is not a destination everyone in this story will reach.
Joining Krasinski in this action epic are a slew of notable faces, including his former Office co-star David Denman (whose beard is incredible) and World War Z actor James Badge Dale. Both bring dramatic weight to the film that helps to forge an emotional connection with the viewer. Krasinski is also supported by Pablo Schreiber, perhaps best known as “porn-stache” on Orange Is The New Black, who continues to accelerate through the Hollywood hierarchy with yet another unforgettable appearance as Tonto, the lovable smartass. The characters are all based on the real men who led the efforts to keep Americans alive on that fateful day, but they also feel as if they would be found in any other modern military tale. Like all good ensembles, each actor has a very specific role to play that, if executed well, makes the entire team feel a bit more real.
Politically speaking, 13 Hours tries to wear its message on its sleeve as opposed to expressing it through dialogue. There is very little mention of the U.S. government or the role it played in causing the events in Benghazi to unfold, but in a way that seems to be the point. When things go from bad to worse, there is no one for the men and women in Benghazi to turn to for aid. Their presence in Libya is a secret to most of the world, including much of the military, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking to learn just how fast the lives of those onsite are able to be written off as collateral damage. Bay doesn’t seem to say we shouldn’t fight for what is right, but he does ask us to think about the places we send our citizens and whether or not they need to be there. He also asks us to consider the way the U.S. government views its citizens, as well as their willingness, or lack thereof, to risk exposure if it means keeping people safe.
I would be lying if I said 13 Hours didn’t play into what Bay already does well, but that is exactly why the film works. With the exception of giant robots battling through city streets or an asteroid hurling itself toward Earth, everything you would expect from a Michael Bay creation is present in The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi. You have ample action sequences that are both chaotic and impossible to follow, stoic leading men who say very little outside of tired action cliches, and a narrative that is pulsing with tension from essentially the opening sequence. The usual shortcomings of Bay’s work are also present, such as female characters with nothing to do and lens flares in places where such things could ever happen, but those missteps are far less obvious here than in previous films and I believe a lot of that is owed to the performances of the entire cast.
While I do wish there was more coherency in the action and that at least 20 minutes had been cut from the total runtime, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi does turn out to be one of the better Michael Bay films. The cast is great, the story is ripe for adaptation and the visuals will leave you with your jaw on the floor. We all knew Michael Bay would handle the action in this film without issue long before we saw a single frame of the finished product, but his ability to showcase all the chaos in the streets without losing focus of the men and their reasons for fighting is what makes the film something worth seeing. You may think you know what Bay is capable of, but here he surprises even his most jaded critics, and though the final product is far from perfect it does lead one to believe Bay may not yet have hit his peak as a storyteller. Furthermore, 13 Hours offers Krasinski and the supporting talent at his side a chance to showcase a side of themselves rarely seen before now. That, coupled with Bay’s keen eye for mayhem, should more than justify the cost of a trip to the theater.